Baader-Meinhof: The Stasi connection

The Baader-Meinhof Group, otherwise known as the Red Army Faction (RAF), represented itself as a small, independent group of heroes taking on not only West Germany but the entire American Empire. In fact – as has been increasingly well documented in the years since the fall of the Iron Curtain – they were far from independent.

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1981: bombing of Ramstein AF Base

After German reunification in 1990, massive East German archives were opened and discoveries began to be made. One of those discoveries, made in 1991, was that a 1981 RAF attack on a U.S. Army base, which included a failed attempt to kill U.S. General Frederick Kroesen, commander of American forces in Europe, was in fact a joint operation with Stasi, East Germany’s brutal secret police. Stasi officers, it turned out, had trained RAF members to use anti-tank grenades and had also supplied them with the grenades. Later information showed that the Stasi also trained RAF members responsible for the 1981 bombing of the U.S. air base at Ramstein, which wounded 17 people.

These revelations severely damaged the RAF’s reputation among its many West German fans. But they were just the beginning.

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Bettina Röhl

As we noted yesterday, one of Ulrike Meinhof‘s daughters, Bettina Röhl, went on to become a journalist herself – and a fierce critic of the RAF. Röhl, who was ten years old when Meinhof was captured and incarcerated, and fourteen when she committed suicide in prison, published a book in 2006 about the RAF that was sardonically entitled Making Communism Fun.

Among Röhl’s revelations, based on archival research, was that konkret, the far-left magazine that was published by her father and edited by her mother, was for many years wholly financed and directly controlled by the East German government. Far from being a free voice of dissent, in other words, it was, at least in the early 1960s, an out-and-out East German propaganda organ, and Röhl’s father was, in Bettina’s own words, a bought-and-paid-for “useful idiot” who accepted 40,000 deutsche marks per issue for following the Honecker regime’s orders. Later, Röhl was able to document the regular transfer of funds from the East German government to the RAF.

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1967: death of Benno Ohnesorg

In 2009, further archival studies forced a total rewrite of the event originally cited by the RAF as having triggered its founding. In 1967, the shooting by a police officer of university student Benno Ohnesorg at a demonstration against the visiting Shah of Iran outside the opera house in West Berlin had solidified young West German leftists’ hostility toward their government – and had intensified their belief that things were better on the other side of the Iron Curtain. The 2009 revelations, however, showed that Karl-Heinz Kurras, the cop who killed Ohnesorg, was in fact a Stasi spy and a member of the East German Communist Party. There’s no definitive evidence as to motive, but as at least one observer has pointed out, the likely reason for Ohnesorg’s murder is that “Kurras on his own or under orders from the Stasi decided to give the left wing a matryr to mobilize them.”

ARCHIV: Der angeklagte Rechtsextremist Horst Mahler wartet vor dem Landgericht Muenchen (Bayern) auf den Beginn seines Prozesses wegen Volksverhetzung (Foto vom 12.01.09). Der Rechtsextremist und fruehere NPD-Anwalt Horst Mahler ist vom Landgericht Muenchen wegen Volksverhetzung zu einer sechsjaehrigen Haftstrafe verurteilt worden. Der Vorsitzende Richter Martin Rieder begruendete am Mittwoch (25.02.09) das hohe Strafmass damit, dass der Angeklagte "voellig uneinsichtig und unbelehrbar" sei. Zudem koenne das umfangreiche Gestaendnis Mahlers zu Beginn der Verhandlung nicht strafmildernd gewertet werden, da er keinerlei Reue erkennen lasse. Zu seinen Gunsten koenne lediglich das Alter des 73-Jaehrigen angefuehrt werden. "Der Angeklagte ist sogar stolz auf seine Taten", sagte Rieder. (zu ddp-Text) Foto: Joerg Koch/ddp
Horst Mahler

In 2011, the Guardian reported that Horst Mahler, one of the RAF’s founders, had reportedly been a paid Stasi informant until 1970. (By the way, in what may be regarded as a reflection of the ideological confusions that marked most of the RAF’s high-profile members, Mahler later became a neo-Nazi and Holocaust denier.)

Over the years, the picture has come ever more sharply into focus – and the role of the Stasi in the story of RAF has loomed larger and larger. It was, for example, the Stasi that smuggled RAF leaders Gudrun Ensslin and Andreas Baader back into West Berlin after they’d spent some time laying low in France and Italy, waiting for things to cool down back home.

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A wanted poster showing RAF members

The Stasi’s involvement grew with the rise of the so-called second and third generation of the RAF, who came to the fore after the first generation were sent to prison (and the top names committed suicide). Thanks to Stasi training, this new wave of RAF members were able to carry out more professional-quality acts of terrorism. Many of these later RAF members eventually retired in East Germany, where they were given new identities and rewarded with lifestyles that ordinary East Germans could only dream about – only to be arrested, tried, and imprisoned after German reunification.

In short, it’s clear by now that the RAF was, when you come right down to it, a Stasi operation. But this aspect of the RAF story is still often overlooked – for example, in the 2008 German movie The Baader Meinhof Complex. We’ll get around to the movie tomorrow.

Theory into action: Baader-Meinhof’s depredations

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1968: Baader and Ensslin explode a department store in Frankfurt

All told, they’re considered to have been responsible for thirty-four deaths and scores of injuries. At their height in the 1970s, they bombed several U.S. Army installations, a police station, a judge’s car, the headquarters of the Alex Springer publishing house, and the West German embassy in Stockholm. They assassinated several bigwigs and, in doing so, also took the lives of a number of policemen, chauffeurs, and other bystanders. The worst year of all was 1977, when, during the so-called “German Autumn,” they murdered West Germany’s chief federal prosecutor, kidnapped and killed its leading industrialist, and, in collaboration with a Palestinian terrorist group, hijacked a Lufthansa commercial flight.

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1972: car bomb in Munich

Why did they do all of this? Much has been said and written about the impact of Nazism and the Holocaust upon the first postwar generation of West Germans. They felt rage at their parents for not standing up to Hitler. They felt guilt over the Nazi era, which they tried to relieve by casting America as the new fascist empire and themselves as its virtuous anti-fascist opponents. That they could look at the free countries of the West and see a continuation of Nazi tyranny, while looking with indifference, or even a degree of admiration, upon the truly tyrannical regimes just across the border in the Soviet bloc, is only a measure of just how twisted a psychological impact the shadow of Nazism had upon many young West Germans of the 1960s and 70s.

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1977: Federal prosecutor Siegfried Buback assassinated

But the members of the Baader-Meinhof Group, which called itself the Red Army Faction (RAF), weren’t content just to sit in their college dormitories, rant about the evils of America and capitalism and their parents’ generation, and attend the occasional far-left demo. They convinced themselves that the evils of America and its puppets in Bonn justified the most extreme kind of violence. After all, America was killing people in Vietnam. Many West German leaders were ex-Nazis. As far as the RAF was concerned, killing soldiers, bankers, jurists, executives, and police officers was a matter of an eye for an eye. Somehow it didn’t seem to occur to them that their view of these victims as subhumans deserving of coldblooded extinction was altogether too reminiscent of the Nazi ideology that they professed to despise.

Like many far-left European youths of their day, the RAF’s founders identified with obscure radical groups in distant corners of the globe. “Their role models,” as one observer has noted, “were the Tupamaros – the Movimiento de Liberación Nacional in Uruguay – which since the late 1960s had resorted to kidnappings and assassinations in its fight for social justice.”

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1978: Hanns-Martin Schleyer kidnapped and killed

Nobody played a greater role in formulating the RAF philosophy than Ulrike Meinhof. Prior to joining the group, Meinhof had been a prominent journalist and editor for a left-wing monthly, konkret, to which she contributed endless theoretical justifications for radical violence. She was, perhaps, the group’s most puzzling figure. Though an active member of West Germany’s illegal Communist Party, she also led a relatively bourgeois life, marrying Klaus Rainer Röhl, the publisher of konkret, and having twin daughters with him.

Not long after divorcing Röhl in 1968, however, she met various members of the RAF, and allowed herself to be drawn into a plot to spring Andreas Baader, who was then behind bars. As a credentialed writer, she managed to persuade a court to let Baader be escorted from his prison to an institute for social research where she could talk to him in connection with a book project. The two met up as planned, and three group operatives broke into the institute, shot a librarian, and left with Baader through a window. Meinhof, who had supposedly planned to stay behind and profess no involvement in the conspiracy, apparently changed her mind at the last minute, following her new confederates out the window.

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Klaus Rainer Röhl and Ulrike Meinhof

Although she sought to represent herself, in her countless articles, as a profound student of radical political theory who’d done a great deal of deep thinking about how to translate theory into practice – Meinhof seems to have been, at best, something of a flibbertigibbit. After leaping out that window, she phoned a friend to pick up her daughters at school. Later, she arranged to have them kidnapped and sent to a camp for Palestinian orphans, but the girls were rescued and returned to their father. One of Meinhof’s daughters, Bettina Röhl, grew up to be a journalist herself – and an uncompromising critic of her mother’s cockeyed ideology, terrorist activities, and horrible parenting. We’ll look into that tomorrow.